Although beloved instructor Cyndi Lee’s New York home base, Om Yoga, closed unexpectedly this past summer, Lee’s been busy. She’s been traveling the world teaching poses and meditation, training teachers, and, it turns out, finishing a memoir that details her lifelong struggle with body image.
May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind, which debuted at the end of January, is an earnest, emotional account of Lee’s efforts to understand and then transform her attitude towards her body, peppered throughout with anecdotes from her yoga classes. The juxtaposition is raw and real—a scene where she’s agonizing over the size of her butt may not be far from one in which she’s giving students guidance on letting go.
But instead of exposing her as a fake, it reminds the reader of an important fact: the people we look to for guidance are just people, too, which is why it’s possible to learn so much from them. In a world of elevated gurus (that usually fall), Lee’s humanity is refreshing and relatable.
The book also offers a fun peek into her surprisingly bad-ass life, as a back-up dancer for Cyndi Lauper, a choreographer for Rick James music videos, and an East Village hippie experimenting with hair colors and hallucinogens.
We caught up with the yoga luminary to find out why she decided to bare all and what she hopes women will gain from the book:
First off, why did you decide to write this book? It was bubbling up inside of me for a long time. I just got the idea that I wanted to write a book about my relationship with my body. I wanted to change this habit of being critical, and so I kind of wrote it in real time. I wanted to call it ‘I hate my body,’ but my editor said, “You can’t use that title. We need to show were you end, not where you start.”
There’s a lot of incredibly personal material in the book, about your challenges and relationships. How does it feel putting it all out there for all of your students and admirers to read? It actually doesn’t feel that weird. If you start to write a memoir, you’ve got to go for it. I’m that kind of teacher anyway—when I talk, I talk from a personal place, I try to really go deep. It was the only way that this was going to help anyone. I didn’t write it because I wanted everyone to know that I hate my body. I thought that maybe if I have this problem and most of my girlfriends do, that maybe many more people do, and we could move through it together.
While it’s a memoir, people will be looking to the book for advice, since you’re a teacher. What’s the main message? The main message of the book is that in order to be loving and compassionate to others, you have to be that way with yourself. It’s a big shift, especially for women. We’re bad at it. We feel bad about ourselves, depressed, pissed off, depleted. We really have to learn to love ourselves. It’s the mature thing to do. I talk about how I learned to do it, by using Buddhist classic lovingkindness meditation. Usually you do it for other people, but I did it for myself. It really changed my whole M.O.
And where does yoga come in? There’s quite a lot of yoga in it, especially in the sections where I describe teachings I’ve been giving. Sometimes, I’m really good at giving the lessons but not as good at learning them. It’s sort of a story of me learning my own lessons. I didn’t want to be a fraud, so I thought ‘I’ve got to go figure this out, I’ve got to get it together.'” —Lisa Elaine Held